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Downtown Winnipeg business flourishes despite COVID-19 pandemic


Colin Koop remembered a time when the thought of owning his own brewery felt like a dream.

“Somehow, we managed to make this place work even though we started from really, behind the eight ball,” Koop said as he poured pints at Devil May Care Brewing on Fort Street.

In this multi-part series, CTV News Winnipeg surveyed four downtown employers about work-life after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Koop opened his downtown Winnipeg venture in 2022, two days before Christmas, near the tail end of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re a small local, independent craft brewer,” Koop said, adding that they also mix it up with other kinds of fun beverages and operate a taproom and production facility.

The brewery is just one of the new businesses that opened during or since the pandemic.

According to the most recent statistics released by Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, more businesses have closed than opened year after year.

Kate Fenske is the CEO of Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, and she says that the tide may be turning.

“We've been tracking what's happening with businesses, and for the first time this quarter in 2024, we saw more businesses opening and closing,” Fenske said. “That really shows that there is still commitment, there's investment happening, and there's optimism downtown.”

Fenske said large-scale projects like the redevelopment of  the Hudson’s Bay building and Portage Place and the future development of Railside at The Forks are key to that strategy.

“I think we need to be ambitious.”

“My net worth at the time was less than zero”

Since 2015, Koop and his business partner have dreamed of opening a brewery, so he started “contract brewing” in 2018 with local label Stone Angel until the pandemic shuttered the brewery.

“Contract brewing is when you utilize excess space and production capacity at another facility,” Koop said. “We would use somebody else's equipment to produce our own beer.”

During the pandemic, Koop brought his brewmaster skills to Torque Brewing where he continued to ship dozens of cans across the province after an agreement to contract brew from their facility.

Based on hard times and witnessing Stone Angel close, the idea of opening his own space seemed very unlikely.

“My net worth at the time was less than zero,” Koop said, “We started with nothing, less than nothing.”

Ironically, beer sales gave them enough money to take a shot at opening their own storefront.

“With the uptick in retail consumption, at that time, people were staying at home, they had a lot more disposable income,” Koop said, “They were drinking a lot more.”

Colin Koop operates a production facility in the back portion of the Devil May Care Brewing building. During the pandemic, Koop’s individual beer can sales allowed him to put enough money in his pocket to feasibly consider looking for his own storefront. (Joseph Bernacki/CTV News Winnipeg)

Koop and his partner could have opened anywhere in the city with commercial real estate suffering citywide, but the pandemic dampened downtown rent enough that they could afford to open up.

“Honestly, like ever since I’ve been a kid, I’ve loved downtown Winnipeg,” Koop said, “My mom used to drag me to Eaton’s to go shopping. I have really fond memories about that.”

READ MORE: Hybrid remote work schedules here to stay for Downtown Winnipeg

Downtown Winnipeg BIZ and its partners are tasked with making downtown a place to thrive.

“We are seeing positive investment, and there is belief in our downtown,” Fenske said, “We have to think about what it is that Winnipeggers want and deserve.”

She said the return of thousands of workers to the downtown also contributes to its revitalization.

“What we know is that workers absolutely have an impact on the vibrancy of our downtown,” Fenske said, “It's great to see more of them bringing employees back.”

READ MORE: 'People are trickling back': Thousands of workers return to downtown Winnipeg offices

Colin Koop said he hopes more businesses will open up, especially grocery stores.

“Right now, we’re kind of in the grocery desert,” Koop said, “We need a grocery store downtown.”

He said the perception that downtown isn’t safe is also a big issue and visitors need to trust that they won’t be attacked while they are downtown.

“I've been down here for two years, every day, and I love it,” he said.

A recent Winnipeg Police report says violent crime is up more than 30 percent over the last five years. With a new crime reduction strategy in the works,many wonder if that will be enough but Koop has faith.

“You know, for people to also just realize that downtown isn't scary,” Koop said. “People want to be down here, right?" 

Colin Koop said he was influenced to choose a downtown location based on fond memories spending time in the neighbourhood growing up. He hopes future business owners will be attracted to the area and said the community is in desperate need of a grocery store. (Joseph Bernacki/CTV News Winnipeg) Top Stories

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